Open School for Village Hosts

The Open School for Village Hosts – a pan-European Erasmus+ project – has been launched in Barcelona. Above: project partners meeting at Elisava earlier this month. (This post is a preview: the project’s website will be launched shortly).

Village Hosts bring new social, economic and ecological life to small villages and their local economy.  They create new livelihoods, and good work, in emerging urban-rural markets: positive-impact tourism, nature reconnection, adventure sports, farm-shares, learning journeys, wellness retreats, work-vacations, heritage trails, and more.

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Design for Multi-Species Cities

What would it mean to practice design in the knowledge that the well-being of humans, and non-humans, is inter-connected? A recent design workshop at Milan Polytechnic explored just this question: practical ways to make cities hospitable for all of life, not just human life.

‘Driade’, Alessia Pinna| Clarissa Cuoccio | Heitor Lobo Campos |
Mika Lessmann | Innocenzo De Risola

Students were challenged to design an artefact, an intervention, or an experience, from one of these three aspects of green infrastructure:

  • Soil Care, Composting, Fermentation
  • Trees, Microparks, Edible Forests
  • Microbiome Inspired Green Infrastructure (MIGI)
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“An inspiring design”

goats spreading seeds


For its inaugural meeting, @designcouncil asked its eight Design For Planet Fellows, of which I am one, to share “an inspiring design”. I chose a publication called Regenerative Empathy – and below I explain why.

“Place” wrote Simone Weil, “is a doorway into caring. Love of place can unite people across diverse ideological spectra. It can unleash the personal and political will for the profound changes we need to make”.

But healthy places are alive, and filled with dynamic interactions. In what practical ways can design engage with places as living systems? Ways that are regenerative, and not its opposite?

This document, Regenerative Empathy, describes a design project in 2018 about just that question: How to design new relationships between people, soils, animals, and plants in the Camargue bioregion in southern France. (The link above takes you to a 110 page pdf)

Led by landscape architect Teresa Galí-Izard, twenty grad students were given an unusual design brief: regenerate the soils of the bioregion – its rhizosphere – as a biological, living entity.

They were instructed to do this by creating new associations and synergies between between, people, animals, vegetation, weather.

Technology could be part of the story, but not its driver.

Among the proposals emerging from the work:
– An archepelago of pastures in the Les Alpilles mountains from which goats would disperse seed, and regenerate soil;
– a landscape in which the lives of pigs and peach trees help each other;
– peach trees – pruned, and carefully maintained – interacting with the messy, unpredictable habits of pigs;
– a system of collection ponds, alongside existing drainage channels, that would enable interactions among cypress trees and sheep, cattle, fruit trees, and rice.

When these design studies are added together, a dynamic and life-providing landscape emerges from what had been forgotten and marginal land.

A design that interacts with diverse disciplines is central to the process recorded here. The student designers had to find and engage with different sources of knowledge and information.

Framed by the space of life called the rhizosphere, they studied geological maps, and climate data, and read scientific articles. Above all, they did extensive field work: talking with farmers about food production; with social historians about culture; with ecologists about ecosystems.

The student designers shared their insights and proposals using a sparse shared language: black-and-white line drawing.

Four years after I first encountered this work – when it enchanted, but perplexed me – I finally understand its title. If design is to be regenerative, empathy with diverse actors and processes is essential.

And not just with the diverse forms of life that are there, in the bioregion, now. Regeneration involves delicate interactions between climate and geology, and sensitivity to layering of events and histories over time.

Regenerative Empathy is a Studio Report from the Fall 2018 semester at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design based on the option studio “Rhizosphere,” taught by Teresa Galí-Izard. The studio was made possible with support from the LUMA Foundation.


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Microbes and Social Equity – Dr Sue Ishaq in conversation with John Thackara

The more we learn about life on earth, the clearer it becomes that the well-being of humans, and of non-humans, is inter-connected. They are a single story. Sustainable design, in this context, means designing for all of life – not just human life. That’s a big step! Not so long ago, human-centered design was considered progressive in itself – and now we have to design for all of life? All of life is not just large, visible lifeforms – like trees, or bears. It also includes microbes that are all around us, and inside us – but invisibly. Ninety nine percent of life, it turns out, is invisible – so how do we design for that? To begin that conversation, my guest in this conversation is Dr. Suzanne Ishaq – a microbiome researcher and founder of the Microbes and Social Equity working group

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My newsletter: Meetup dates | Regenerative Design in China | Back To The Land 2.0

CONTENTS
Dates for my Meetups/Retreats in 2022
YouTube Channel 
Nature Reconnection: Hour of Ecology Project
Regenerative Design in China 
School for Village Hosts in Europe 
Back To The Land Summer School in Sweden 
Recent Publications

THACKARA MEETUPS
PRE-ANNOUNCEMENT & SUMMER DATESAfter a two-year pause, Kristi and I are hosting three Meetups this summer at our home in southern France. If you are a designer, project curator, postgrad student, researcher,
or writer – and are working on a thesis, project, or book – check out their feedback in our guestbook.

This year’s dates are:
Tuesday 24 May – Tuesday 31 May
Tuesday 14 June – Tuesday 21 June
Thursday 7 July – Thursday 14 July

We will invite applications (basically, a short email to us) from
mid-February. Go here for further information: thackara.com/meet-ups.
And if you are not already a newsletter subscriber, please sign up here.

REGENERATIVE DESIGN IN PRACTICE: 
OUR NEW YOUTUBE CHANNEL
The words ‘regenerative design’ sound great – but what do they mean in practice? In the videos on our new youtube channel, inspiring pioneers explain what their work entails in practice. Henriette Waal (Atelier Luma) tells me about ‘Living with Rising Water’ and ‘Weaving for Wetlands’. Indy Johar (Dark Matter Labs) talks about ‘Nature as Infrastructure’. In Hour of Ecology, I discuss the role of design in nature reconnection.

REGENERATIVE DESIGN IN CHINA
In China, at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Yongqi Lou (Vice President at Tongji University) I’m developing the agenda for a thematic cluster where Regenerative Design meets climate finance, artificial intelligence, ecological restoration, green infrastructure, and agro-ecology. This work builds on the bioregioning agenda, and the Urban-Rural expo we did in Shanghai at the end of 2019. In a recent work-in-progress talk called Beyond Calculation: AI and Sustainability I ask: Can AI serve all of life, not just human life? And if so, how?

DESIGN FOR PLANET FELLOWSHIP 
Together with eight colleagues, I’ve joined the #designforplanet
Fellowship recently launched by Design Council in the UK. Over the coming months, we will explore ways to turn the promise of Regenerative Design into practice. Our themes include design for adaptive and resilient places; the restoration of natural systems; and design for nature reconnection.

OPEN SCHOOL FOR VILLAGE HOSTS
Post-Covid tourism. Agro-ecology. Land-based learning. Many new activities and livelihoods are emerging in small villages around Europe – but these social innovation projects do not organise themselves. A key role is
played by project producers and curators we call “village hosts”. A pan-European Erasmus project called Open School for Village of Hosts, which I’m advising, will create a training program, a knowledge exchange platform, and a pilot project. More details to follow soon.

BACK TO THE LAND 2.0 SUMMER COURSE, SWEDEN 
Together with Konstfack, I’m once again running the international summer masters course on sustainable food systems and biodiversity. Running from 20 June to 28 August, the course combines online study with a live week long workshop in the rural Swedish village of Hjulsjö. All are eligible to apply, and EU students are charged no fees for tuition. Registration opens on 18 February; applications close on 15 March. My fellow tutors are Cheryl Akner Koler, Annika Göran Rodell, Corina Akner and Anna Maria Orrù.

RECENT PUBLICATIONS
The relationship of my texts to a dead fish (Writing in Creative Practice).
Climate: Are We Thinking Too Hard? In Common Table.
Reconnecter villes et campagnes: l’approche biorégionaliste  (French
translation of Bioregioning: Pathways to Urban-Rural Reconnection)

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Beyond Calculation: AI and Sustainability

this image links to the video on Youtube

SUMMARY
Trillions of dollars of climate finance need nature to be machine-like. But nature is not a machine. So how shall we proceed? In this 20′ talk, I explore two questions: Can AI serve all of life, not just human life? And if so, how?

BACKGROUND TO THIS TALK
In Shanghai, at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Yongqi Lou (Vice President at Tongji University) I’m developing the agenda for a Thematic Cluster around the agenda of Regenerative Design.

My job is to identify opportunities where Regenerative Design meets climate finance, artificial intelligence, ecological restoration, green infrastructure, and agro-ecology. The work builds on the bioregioning agenda, and the Urban-Rural expo we did at the end of 2019. The results will feed into new programmes during 2022.

Also in 2022, I will be part of the #designforplanet Fellowship launched this month by Design Council. Together with eight colleagues, we will turn the promise of #RegenerativeDesign into practice.

The talk transcript below (or click to see see the video) is a form of work-in-progress: it’s my keynote for International Forum on Innovation and Emerging Industries Development (IEID) in Shanghai 02 December 2021. I gave the talk at the invitation of Professor Filippo Fabrocini

Transcription of “Beyond Calculation”

Good data are important if we are to understand and reverse the destruction of nature that’s so distressing to us all. And it is good news that more and more data about biodiversity is becoming available thanks to the marvels of satellite imagery, DNA analysis, and other data analysed by AI.

But is artificial intelligence enough, on its own, to drive the ecological transition we so desperately need?

My key point today: AI can be a support for transformational change. But a truly just transition will only happen when, in the words of Raimon Pannikar, we “see nature differently, relate to nature differently, and understand our purpose here differently”.

Seventy five years ago, in 1944, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov published his First Law of Robotics. It stated: “A robot may not injure a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”.

Around the world, numerous groups have puiblished ethical principles for AI. By one estimate, 172 statements have been published so far. China’s version is aligned with most of the other statements: AI should be re-oriented in the service of human good.

If we think of Artificial Intelligence as a kind of robot, then Asimov’s law could easily be updated: “AI may not injure a human being nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm’.

There’s been more disagreement about implementation of such a law. How can we ensure, experts ask, that AI systems will understand what we mean? Do what we want? This question, too, has a history. Back in 1960, the mathematician Norbert Wiener asked, “Are we quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire?.”

That one word – ‘purpose’ – highlights the core dilemma that I will focus on today.

Because even if we could be sure that AI would understand and obey an updated Asimov law, such a law would only mention “what’s good for humans” . There’s no mention of all the other life forms we share the living planet with. This humans-first approach has had catastrophic consequences throughout the industrial age.

Even before AI came along, “what’s good for humans” helped shape an economy that extracts vitality, as well as resources, from the planet’s living systems.

This cultural disconnection – between the living world, and the economic one – explains why we either don’t think about rivers, soils, and biodiversity at all – or we treat them as natural ‘resources’ whose only purpose is to feed “the economy.”

The idea that “the economy” exists in a separate domain from life itself sounds crazy when you say it out loud.

By the same token, It makes little sense to discuss the purpose of AI in isolation from the bigger picture of life on earth, and our place within that.

President Xi alluded to the need for a larger purpose just a few days ago. In a speech about the Belt and Road Initiative, he called for a “new development paradigm”.

This idea – a new concept for development – is for me the best place to start in any discussion of where and how we use AI.

New development paradigm

We need to ask, first: What are the social and ecological objectives of development? and, within that framework, How can AI help us achieve them?

For me, “new development paradigm” means development that helps all of life thrive – not just human life. It means: Enable natural systems to endure. It means: Beneficial relations between ecosystems.

How would AI help us achieve this?

I believe that AI – used together with science, design, and art – can be a medium of experience and learning that can help us realise that nature, and the economy, are not two different places. Everything in the living world is connected

AI can support a learning process that re-awakens our capacity for ecological thinking – and help us “see” the life that surrounds us – but invisibly.

There are positive developments along these lines in the worlds of AI and Machine Learning.

In 2019, Machine Learning heavyweights from GoogleAI, Deep Mind, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, ETH Zurich and others published this 111-page report “Tackling Climate Change With Machine Learning”.

Their report included a comprehensive list list of “Climate change solution domains” . These range from remote sensing, to the rededsign of financial markets.

It’s a long list, but one theme united these experts: If we’re going to manage the climate crisis – if we’re going to find “solutions” – then we need more data” !

Global demand for environmental data was supercharged two weeks ago at COP26 in Scotland.

Mark Carney announced that 130 trillion dollars in climate finance commitments had been promised by various financial actors. The mysterious acronyms he used disguise a lot disagreement about what counts as climate finance, what the money is for, and who gets to spend it.

But Carney made one point clear in plain language: this money would prove hard to distribute in the absence of metrics and verification.

Carney’s announcement can only increase the search for climate disclosure metrics. A.I. is being promoted as a global observation platform that monitors ecosystem health at multiple scales – from the planetary, to the microscopic.

Planet Labs, on a larger scale, have deployed a swarm of Earth-observing satellites that can monitor every forest, every tree, and every city block, everywhere on Earth, on a daily basis.

This real-time ecological dashboard, say Planet, can enable forest managers to see the signs of deforestation as they are occurring – as opposed to long after.

Its satellites can also spot but also detect the precursors of deforestation they say – such as the establishment of illegal roads that tend to appear before trees are illegally harvested.

Another big project, Microsoft’s AI For Earth, give people the power to make accurate climate predictions using artificial intelligence tools.

In England, researchers at Exeter University are training AI systems to classify all this raw data – from sensors on the ground, in the sky, or in space.

Integrating data and information from multiple, inter-related, sources, they claim, affords better understanding of complex interactions between the climate, natural ecosystems, human systems, the economy, and health.

In Switzerland, the Crowther Lab has launched an open data platform, Restor, that connects everyone, everywhere, to local restoration.

Restor connects people to scientific data, supply chains, funding – and each other – to increase the impact, scale, and sustainability of restoration efforts.

“We believe that anyone can be a restoration champion” they say, “ including you”

Bird research is also being transformed by Artificial Intelligence. The BirdNET platform, for example, combines bioacoustics with an AI based algorithm to automate bird species recognition from acoustic data.

Citizen science has radically expanded the scale of data collection: birdwatchers have contributed than 140 million observations

In Germany they use eDNA metabarcoding to analyse the health and diversity of insect populations.

Soils are the most complex microbial ecosystem we know. A single teaspoon of healthy soil may contain thousands of species, a billion individuals, and one hundred metres of fungal networks. The soils in forest ecosystems, especially, are a foundational part of the global carbon cycle. But to most of us in the modern urban world, they’ve been invisible and uncared for.

Julian Liber studies the rhizosphere – the soil around the root of plant where microbial activity is especially high. Helped by AI, he tracks fungal hyphae – their rate of growth, how often they branch, and other metrics.

The number and vitality of worms is another good indicator of soil health. Thanks to machine learning, observations from diverse sources can now be used to make diagnostic maps.

Fish farming is investing heavily in sensors and AI tools. Some of these systems can even even monitor what they eat.

Another agricultural process, composting, transforms organic waste to nutrient-rich manure. But composting infrastructures tend to be installed away from residential areas. This makes tending to the compost heap a tedious task.

Thanks to compost monitors, Internet of Things, and AI, composting has now become a more viable as an urban activity.

The scale and scope of biodiversity sampling is being expanded dramatically by small, low-power computing devices, advances in wireless communications, and data-recognition algorithms in the field of machine learning. AudioMoth, for example, is being used to understand the world of bats in real time.

These efforts are vital in efforts to prevent another Covid. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences are using AI-supported bioacoustics to plot the distribution of bat species.Their aim is anticipate any danger of ‘spillover’ – from wild into urban – as a result of habitat disturbance by human activity.

But let me return to the core issue of PURPOSE of AI and the new development paradigm mentioned earlier.

The restoration of ecosystems damaged by decades of extraction is surely central to that over-arching purpose. AI, here, can play a important role in identifying restoration options that diversify the local economy, and create jobs. For example, the use of fiber crops to remediate degraded land and provide future livelihoods.

In Australia, where numerous mine sites are being rehabilitated back to their native ecosystems, eDNA metabarcoding helps ecologists determine what insects, pollinators, and bacteria used to live there, and so what should be planted there, next.

Add all these experiments together, and the tools and connectivity are within our grasp, today, to monitor every patch the vital signs of of the planet in real time.

We could repurpose the giant screen used by Alibaba to monitor sales during Black Friday. We could feed in data – from satellites in space, to microbial communities surveyed by eDNA.

We’d get a wondrous insight into the health of planet – place by place, patch by patch.

But there’s a dilemma here. A new dashboard is not the same as a new system.

On the contrary. For most if the world’s economic and political actors – the ones that will spend $100 trillion of climate finance announced by Mark Carney – the climate crisis is not a system failure – it’s a problem of management, efficiency, and control.

All those promises to plant billions of trees? A Yale study found that 45% of these trees, planted “efficiently”, will be monocultural plantations – managed as cash crops and devoid of biodiversity.

That’s the problem with the dashboard idea. It frames the living world as some kind of machine to process “natural resources” and “ecosystem services”.

Returning to Mark Carney again: that tsunami of climate finance could actually increase ecological destruction.

Demand for carbon offsets, net-zero, and nature positive credits, is escalating. And in order to meet this demand on a large scale, investors demand standardised metrics in order to simplify and speed up verification.

But biodiversity is the literal opposite of standardised.

The best indicator of biodiversity health is diversity, continuous adaptation, and change. The health of an ecosystem lies in the vitality of interactions between its component species.

The study of living systems tells a consistent story. Whether it’s sub-microscopic viruses, mosses, and mycorrhizae – or trees, rivers and climate systems – science has confirmed an ancient wisdom: All natural phenomena are not only connected. Their very essence is to be in relationship with other things -including us.

The health of the soil, microbes, soil, plants – and the health of people – are a single story. Diversity and adaptation are the best indicators of vitality.

No matter how massive the datasets and simulations created by AI, computational models cannot comprehend the complexity and interdependence of ecosystems. They will remain just that: models of reality.

The bank Credit Suisse, with remarkable candour, has put it best: ”biodiversity is the anti-commodity”.

This is bad news for an industrial economy that that treats raw materials as commodities.

In an industrial system, efficiency and control are success factors. The system demands uniformity and standardisation. Diversity, of the kind found in healthy nature, makes the game impossible.

And this is why climate finance could make things worse.

Every social and ecological context is unique – but finance needs the living world to behave like a machine – like the tree plantations I mentioned earlier.

The inherent complexity of nature is confirmed by real-world restoration projects – especially in the world’s critical zones. To monitor their vitality, scientists have established critical zones observatories throughout the world including this one in China.

Yes, they use sensors and highly technical instruments to collect data in these outdoor laboratories. But making sense of this complex data involves multiple skills.

AI can help with interpretation, but the story on the ground remains complex.

As well as the diverse scientific disciplines, ecological restoration can often involve dozens of organisations. This social and organisational dimension further intensifies the complexity.

And as my colleague Professor Lou Yongqi has explained, social systems are just one among four that we have to contend with: Nature, Human, Artificial, and Cyber.

As well as involving multiple systems, real-world ecological restoration also involves multiple timescales.The timescales of restoring land, measured in decades, are way beyond the ultra-fast tempo of financial markets that can be measured in milliseconds.

If finance needs nature to be machine-like – but nature is not a machine – how best are we to respond?

I believe designers are well-placed to help us cope with this tangled dilemma .

Learning from the last 50 years, it’s surely clear that we don’t need more messages, concepts, instructions. What we need, and what we yearn for, is connection – connection with each other; connection with place; and above all, connection with the living.

Designers can use their creative skills to represent social and natural systems immersively. In so-called ‘system in the room’ intallations, we humans can experience being part of nature, not outside.

The word, experience, I believe, is key. AI, as I’ve shown, can provide extraordinary data and insights – but something more is needed to awaken the experience of interconnectedness.

Design-plus-AI can be a medium of attention – such as with ecosystems we have neglected; a medium of connection – so we don’t just look; a medium of relationship with the living world that can persist through time

Beyond Calculation

The destruction will stop when we stop thinking of the oceans, fields and forests as ‘resources’ or ‘solutions’ – and start thinking (and acting) in them as lifeworlds.

Making that shift is the basis of a new way to measure and create value, and therefore purpose. That’s why we need to experience the health of a place, and of the persons who inhabit it, as a single story.

Such a change of course requires ecological literacy, and a whole-systems understanding of the world. AI, art, design, I believe, can help us acquire these skills and understanding.

end

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Entretien avec Domus Magazine

Here is the French version of my interview with Valentina Croci of Domus Magazine, When Value Arises From Relationships, Not From Things /
Translation by Annelies Hollewand.

Q1 : Le modèle consumériste et nos ressources fossiles ont atteint leurs limites. Quel modèle de production alternatif pourrions-nous imaginer ?

JT : J’en suis venu à une conclusion gênante : la production n’est pas un objectif de vie. Je dis gênante, car nous sommes nombreux à dépendre de la production industrielle et ses énergies fossiles pour assurer nos besoins du quotidien. L’économie mondiale doit croître pour survivre : sa faim d’énergie et de matériaux est donc insatiable. Ce besoin de ressources est également dû à une complexité croissante du système et de ses chaînes d’approvisionnement mondiales interconnectées.

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How AI might be used to enhance local knowledge

[Indigenous peoples have a closer relationship with the ecologies of their land than those who practice ‘production agriculture’. But their intimate, fine-grained knowledge can always be enhanced. Sarah Kaushik (above) describes a system in which biodata collected from plants could be ‘heard’ by the farmer as music]

I wrote the Foreword (below) to a new book called Decentralising Digital. The project explores the possible roles that mesh networks, the Internet of Things, voice enabled Internet, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, might play in enhancing ecological agriculture. The design brief: how to enhance the farmers’ ability to understand the health of their soil, and their care for biodiversity. The project is a joint venture between Quicksand Design Studio in India, and the University of Dundee in Scotland.

In the new economy emerging from these turbulent times, the word ‘development’ is taking on a profoundly different meaning. Its core value is stewardship, rather than extraction. It is motivated by concern for future generations, not by what ‘the market’ needs in the next few months. It also respects social practices – some of them very old ones – learned by other societies, and in other times.

This new kind of development is not backwards looking – it embraces technological innovation, too. But technologies are evaluated against the higher purpose that innovation should support – and living lightly on the planet is the most important new purpose for us all.

Living lightly happens to be second nature for poor people who cannot not rely on the high entropy support systems we’ve become used to in the cities.
The resource-light ways with which rural communities meet daily life needs are usually described as poverty, or a lack of development – but, in 35 years as a guest in what used to be called the ‘developing’ world, I’ve come to a startling conclusion: People who are poor in material terms are highly accomplished at the creation of value in ways that do not destroy natural and human assets.

This is not to trivialize the extreme challenges faced by poor people on a daily basis: financial precarity; threats to land rights; disrespect for grounded local knowledge; promotion from the centre of inappropriate and poor quality technical solutions. But, to the extent that a resilient economy is based on local production, human labour, and natural energy – well, the poor rural people of the world are further down the learning curve than the rest of us.

This book is about accentuating the positives among rural communities in Karnataka, India. It explores the possible roles that mesh networks, the Internet of Things, voice enabled Internet, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, might play in enhancing daily life practices that are already successful: ecological agriculture, forest conservation, water management, and place-based education.

Designing for change, in this book, is not much about single, problem-solving ‘solutions’. Its focus is more on ways to improve existing social practices – such as social systems based on kinship, and ways to share resources, that have deep roots right across South Asia and beyond.

In the North, the sharing or Peer-to-Peer economy has been presented as a novelty in recent times – but people in other cultures have collaborated, and supported each other in times of difficulty, over generations. Many of these have atrophied in many cities – but not so in the ‘undeveloped’ communities featured in this book.

Technology can play an important role as the supporting infrastructure needed for these social relationships to flourish. The re-emergence of gift exchange can be made possible by electronic networks. Mobile devices, and the internet of things, make it easier for local groups to share equipment and space, or manage trust in decentralised ways. Technology can also help reinvent cooperative practices – sharing, bartering, lending, trading, renting, gifting, exchanging, & swapping – in which money is but one means among many of holding or exchanging value.

The how as well as the what of innovation is novel in this book. Potential uses of technology are explored in tentative, experimental ways. The actors directly involved learn bit by bit, and reflect as they go along. Space and time are reserved, in this process, for diversity; several different possible outcomes are often explored at the same time.

The futures explored in this book may be local, social, and decentralised – but they can inspire and guide us all. The world can learn from practices here that are community-centric, ecologically-balanced, and culturally-respectful. Whenever we encounter an opportunity for change in our own context, and ask: who has answered a similar question in the past? How might we learn from, or piggyback on, what worked before? The rural communities people, featured here will be one place to look.

The design practices here are more relational, than transactional. They respect the human embeddedness in the natural world. Prospective design actions are respectful of existing social and cultural practices, and ecologically sensitive.

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The Anthroponaut’s Wordbook, by Karin Fink. A prologue

The following is my prologue to The Anthroponaut’s Wordbook, by Karin Fink, which has just been published by Postmedia Books.

The scale of the societal and environmental challenges we face can be debilitating. Feeling powerless to change the course of events, the inclination to switch off can feel like self-defence. Karin Fink’s response is both nimble and wise. Rather than confront the enormity of unfolding events head-on, she sets out to start conversations and foster relationships – one at a time. Rather than re-draw the whole picture at a stroke, her focus in this book is on small connections, and how to enhance them. This approach to connections and relationships echoes the words of Ilya Prigogene, a founder of systems thinking: “When a system is far from equilibrium”, he wrote, “small islands of coherence have the capacity to shift the entire system”. Small islands of coherence, for Karin Fink, are discrete concepts and thoughts that, when articulated, can trigger new conversations among individuals and groups that might have been at loggerheads, or worse, before. The power of this approach is evident from the first entry in this book, on Affluence. Rather than denounce a fallen world for its greed and avarice, we are given a novel interpretation of the word itself – the idea that unmediated contact with nature might be a better measure of wealth than money, or possessions. An innocuous invitation to think ecologically, rather than economically, transforms the meaning and purpose of growth – but by indirect means. Rather than measure progress against abstract measures such as money, or GDP, ecological growth means observable improvements to the health and carrying capacity of the land, and the resilience of communities. Value is created by the stewardship of living systems, rather than the extraction of ‘natural resources’. We are not commanded to change our behaviour. Rather, a subtle tweak of language takes us down a conversational path – away from a world of abstraction, and into a world in which we are part of the web of life. This work is not neither symbolic, nor utopian. We are invited here to experience new connections, not just think about them – to connect with all of life, not just with human life. As Martin Buber counseled, “all living is meeting” , and reflecting on new meanings for that one word – affluence – is an invitation to explore relationships to other living beings, to seek out ways to be part of nature, rather than separate from it. The beauty of this approach is its subtlety. Rather than command us to stop killing the planet, conversations can start in this book that lead us, like a meandering river, to respect soils, waters, plants, and animals as co-equals, with us, of the places we inhabit. This transition is not a dreamy cruise to look at the view – it entails new work. Connecting with place brings with it the duty to care for place – but the pages that follow can show us how – step by step, island by island.
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